Note: This is a guest post in it’s original form by my friend Father Dave of Dulwich Hill, Australia. I am grateful to Father Dave for his continued support of my spiritual pilgrimage.
A Sermon on Romans 13:8-10
I’ve decided to speak this morning on one of the most unnerving and threatening pieces of Scripture I’ve ever come across – threatening and unnerving at least for professional clerics like myself (people who get paid to teach the Bible). The passage is from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, chapter 13:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Ugh! It makes me shudder! What gall, to suggest that it could all be so simple – to suggest that the entire ethics of the Scriptures can be reduced down to a simple command to love, and that the one who has loved has fulfilled the law.
Surely it can’t be that simple, for if it were that simple, you wouldn’t need to employ me – with all my University degrees and prestigious title and library full of books – to teach you the Scriptures! Not if it’s all that simple! If that’s all there is to it, I reckon you can work the rest out for ourselves!
I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if you’re employing a professional to teach you the Scriptures, the implication is that this book requires professional training before you can really come to terms with it. These must be highly obscure books with mysterious hidden messages.
And of course professorial figures like me come at a price! We have to be compensated for all those years of training and hard study, but surely that’s a small price to pay if it means you now have someone to guide you through these ancient books in all their Byzantine complexity, and can so discern the inscrutable will of God.
But not if it’s all this simple; not if there’s just one simple commandment – “love one another” – and the rest is just application. Maybe it’s time I started looking for something to do with my hands?
“The one who loves another has fulfilled the law”, says St Paul. And maybe we could write this off as one of St Paul’s more manic moments, except that I think Paul got this teaching from Jesus, didn’t he?
Wasn’t it Jesus who, when asked what the most important commandments were, didn’t just say that loving God and neighbour were the most important commandments. He went further to say, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 20:40). In other words, not only is the law of love central to the Scriptures, but it is at the basis of every other law and command we find in Scriptures, and indeed none of these other laws or commandments can be understood except as applications of this law of love!
I suspect that this is one of the key reasons Jesus upset his religious peers so much. I think they feared that he was going to put them out of a job.
Now I don’t pretend to have any deep knowledge of the way Rabbi’s worked then or now, but my understanding is that the basic job of a Rabbi was (and is) to give rulings from God’s law that apply to the different situations of life.
You come to a Rabbi and you can ask him anything from, ‘Is it permitted for me to kill someone who has broken into my house?’ to ‘Is it permitted for me to mix milk into my gravy?’ and the Rabbi’s job is to tell you, ‘It is permitted’ or ‘It is not permitted’ based on his unravelling the multiple stands of the Torah. And it’s a tough job, because the Mosaic law is long and complex.
And professional clerics in Islam have a similarly difficult job, as I understand it, for when you read the Koran you’ll find that it too is a complex web of rules and regulations that require some expertise to work through.
But not so for the Christian, according to St Paul, and according to Jesus. All the law and the prophets – the totality of the exhortations of the Scriptures – go back to one simple command to love, and “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” So if you’re in a situation where you are not sure what you should be doing, all you need to ask is, ‘what does love dictate?’ and you have discerned the will of God! It’s that simple!
Now I want to take a moment to reflect on just how radical a formula that is, and, frankly, just how irreligious that is, as a basis for a system of ethics. For it seems to me that the traditional religious basis for determining whether or not something is the will of God is not on the basis of whether or not it is loving, but on the basis of whether or not “it is written”.
I’m sure some of you remember that scene from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ where Brian and his mother turn up to a stoning, where they are going to stone some poor fellow for taking the Lord’s name in vain. And Brian asks, “why can’t we take the Lord’s name in vain, mum?” and she says, “because it is written. That’s why.” And that would indeed seem to be a fairly obvious way of working out God’s will – if indeed we believe that this is God’s book – that all we need to do is to determine whether it is written in the book or not.
Why do we have to circumcise all our male children? Because it is written. That’s why!
Why aren’t we allowed to work on the Sabbath? Because it is written.
And if you look around the church today you’ll find all sorts of people telling us what we can and can’t do on the basis of ‘it is written’.
I was talking this week with a woman who founded a wonderful Christian fellowship group in this area, and she had been running that group successfully for some years until she was told that because she was a woman she wasn’t allowed to play a leadership role in her fellowship. Why not? Because it is written. That’s why not!
I remember some years back the argument that did so much damage to the Ministers Fraternal in this area (ie. the gathering of the priests and pastors from the various denominations that are represented in this area).
The issue was over a gay church that had been started not far from here and the question was, ‘should we invite them to join the fraternal?’ Up to that point we had only one requirement for admission – that the would-be member church should agree with the three fundamental historic creeds of the church, and as far as we knew this group did accept all of these ancient creeds, so we had no reason not to invite them to join. But the suggestion was put forward that a second requirement should be added for those who would become members of the fraternal:
1. You have to agree with the three basic creeds of the church and
2. You are not gay!
And why should we introduce this second requirement? Because it is written.
Now it’s not really my goal today to discuss the role of women in the church or whether we should embrace gay congregations, but what I do want to suggest is that using ‘it is written’ as the sole and sufficient basis for making decisions about what is the will of God was something, it seems to me, that New Testament Christianity very deliberately abandoned!
We see this in repeatedly in Jesus’ conflicts with His religious peers over his seemingly lax attitude to the Sabbath laws.
You are not supposed to work on the Sabbath, as we all know. Why not? Because it is written that you don’t, that’s why not! And indeed it is written right in to the ten commandments. It’s number four
But Jesus never seemed to get too worked up about the Sabbath. He eats, he heals and he does any number of things that his religious peers consider to be work, and when they challenge him, what does he say? He doesn’t say, “Oh, actually I think you misread what was written.” He says, “C’mon guys! The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath!”
And it’s an extraordinary statement, as it shows how Jesus refused to simply take the commandment at face value, but instead looked behind what was written to grasp the principle behind it, which was one of love.
God gave us the Sabbath so that we would rest and celebrate. Six days you shall work, but you mustn’t work yourself to death. You must take regular time out for rest and recreation. God knows what us crazy workaholics are like and so specifies this time out as a commandment, but it was always for our sake. It was always an act of love on God‘s part, and if, as Jesus found, people get so obsessed about what is written that they lose sight of the purpose it was written for, then they get the whole thing back to front and end up oppressing people with a commandment that was designed to help set people free!
Jesus saw the Sabbath law as an application of the law of love. And by the time you get to St Paul’s writings, he seems to have gone one step further, becoming almost entirely dismissive of the Sabbath law (as written).
“One person esteems one day as better than another (says Paul in the very next chapter of his letter to the Romans) while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5)
It is extraordinary, I think, that Paul had the courage to more-or-less dismiss, not just any Scriptural law, but one of the ten commandments! And you can see his peers saying to him, “but Paul … it is written!” And you can understand why our Seventh Day Adventist brethren just couldn’t go all the way with St Paul on this one because … hey, it is written!
Of course Paul seemed to abandon not only the traditional observance of the Sabbath, but also most of the traditional food laws, and even that most fundamental practice that was at the heart of the religion of the historic people of God – the ritual of circumcision. And he never denied that it was written that you were supposed to do all those things, but it seems that in the context he was working in, dealing with gentiles rather than Jews, so many of those laws were just no longer applicable, as written.
Instead of taking the Scriptural commandments at face value, he looked behind those laws as written to see what purpose they were supposed to serve, and he decided that in his context those particular ancient laws were just no longer valid applications of the purpose for which they were created.
Now I do believe that once you latch on to this insight into the way the Biblical writers do their thinking, I believe it changes your whole approach to the Bible. You can never say any more. ‘Hey, I know this is the right thing to do’ or ‘I know that you are doing the wrong thing because … it is written.’ I mean, you can say that, but from a Biblical perspective, I think you’ll find that there is still another question to ask. ‘OK. It is written, but is it the most loving thing to do?’
I think of people who have proudly told me how they tried to sort out their problems with a fellow church member by following the Biblical model, as outlined in our Gospel reading today from Matthew 18, where Jesus tells us that if you have an issue with someone, first you try to sort it out one-on-one, then, if that doesn’t work, you take one or two others with you, and if that doesn’t work, you put the matter before the whole church community, etc.
And, for the most part, I find myself being strangely unimpressed with those who have rigidly followed this model, as I don’t think it is the Biblical model. It’s a Biblical model. And indeed, it looks like a very solid application of the law of love when it comes to trying to prevent a quarrel between two people from escalating into something that might destroy the community BUT there will be some circumstances where this is not the most loving way of handling a conflict, and the goal must be to be driven by the law of love, and not to be dictated to by any one particular Scriptural example.
Maybe some people will feel that this approach is not taking the Bible seriously enough. A lot of people thought that of St Paul of course. A lot of people thought that of Jesus – that he was dismissive of the law of God, but how did Jesus respond? He told his opponents, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it!” (Matthew 5:17)
And this is what Jesus does, and He gives us a key for understanding all the laws of Scripture. They are all about love, and if we make the mistake of trying to be loyal to the Scriptures without taking into account the motivating power of love that lies behind them, we take our stand with the Scribes and the Pharisees who stayed true to what was written but had no love in their hearts.
So is there a place for us professional clerics or should I indeed be looking to do something with my hands? It’s a frightening thought of course, as the only thing I’ve ever been able to do effectively with my hands is punch people, and I’m getting a little too old for that. At any rate, you’ll have to be the arbiter of that one, but I would suggest that if there is still a role for us professional teachers of the Scriptures, our primary job must be to safeguard the simplicity of the Gospel truth, and to stop us from over-complicating everything. Maybe it takes a bit of sophistry to be able to do that? I’ll leave you to decide that.
Let me conclude though by mentioning again one of the key things I’ve learnt from Father Elias since he’s been with us, concerning what he believes to be the real division in the church. And it’s not the division between Protestants and Catholics or between Liberals and Conservatives or any of those things. It’s the distinction between Christians who aim at perfection and Christians who aim at love.
And I think we might be able to make a similar distinction between those who look to found their life on what is written and those who look to found their lives on love – love, not at the expense of what is written, but the very love that emanates through what is written in the Bible and the very love that all of the laws of Scripture stem from – the very love that was embodied for us in Jesus, the living word, our King of love.
First preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 2008
Rev. David B. Smith
(the ‘Fighting Father’)
Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three.
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